Much of the money in the budget earmarked for Indigenous peoples was simply a continuation of funds promised in previous budgets.
The budget invests in First Nations communities that are entering the First Nations Land Management Act (FNLMA). In 1999, the federal government passed the FNLMA at the urging of 14 Indian Act bands which wanted to escape the land management parts of the Indian Act. They wanted to improve their economic development prospects by avoiding the restrictions of the Indian Act.
The 2013 budget put $9 million over two years towards that land regime. Economic Action Plan 2015 proposes $30.3 million over five years. The new funds in this budget will allow 25 new First Nations to enter the FNLMA. This act is one of the most significant ways that First Nations can achieve a form of self-government over their lands and resources. It is also a chief vehicle for overcoming economic barriers placed by the anachronistic Indian Act.
It is odd that some First Nations are not praising FNLMA investments in this budget. After all, Aboriginal self-government is seen as the Holy Grail of Indigenous politics. Overcoming Indian Act barriers is seen as one of the main goals for First Nations bands.
Under FNLMA, First Nations adopt land codes that, once ratified by the home community, result in the substitution of 32 restrictive land management provisions of the Indian Act. Bands then manage their own lands and resources. The Minister of Aboriginal Affairs will no longer be involved in this management.
Although Canada will continue to hold title to First Nations land (as a means to protect the integrity of the land base), it will no longer have management authority over the land. First Nations will then be able to use their lands for the benefit of their membership. Any First Nation using the powers under the FNLMA would be able to pass laws and manage its own lands and resources according to its own priorities and its own culture.
It is no secret the Indian Act is a barrier to Indigenous economic development. The evidence shows that entering into FNLMA helps alleviate some of those barriers by allowing First Nations to have unrestricted access to manage their lands.
The Auditor General of Canada has said that FNLMA provides bands with the ability to make “timely business and administrative decisions.” Individual First Nations people feel the effects when these barriers are removed. The National Aboriginal Economic Development Board says that economic outcomes are better for FNLMA communities.
According to 2006 Census data, the average income of $22,883 for First Nations people living in communities operational under the FNLMA was $4,554 higher than average incomes for First Nations people living in communities not in the FNLMA.
A 2009 KPMG study showed that FNLMA communities are able to make decisions at the speed of business. Many communities with FLMNA reported a 40 per cent increase in new business overall by band members and a 45 per cent increase into different types of businesses, including supplier and spin-off businesses. More than 2,000 employment opportunities had been generated for band members and more than 10,000 jobs for non-members. Band members are then less dependent on social programs.
The FNLMA allows a band to move at its own pace. While providing for a degree of self-government over land and resources, the rest of the Indian Act would apply to these communities even with a functional land code. So, they could escape other Indian Act provisions on their own timetable.
Rather than just criticize a budget at first glance, First Nations need to see how it delivers on some of their most deeply held political and economic desires.
Joseph Quesnel is an Aboriginal policy analyst who focuses on Aboriginal policy, property rights and water market issues.